“I suspect I was never destined to be an F1 driver…”
He spent two seasons competing against Lewis Hamilton in cars and beat him both times, yet he hasn’t raced a single-seater since the end of 2004. But Jamie Green harbours no regrets about the hand he’s been dealt. He’s a professional racing driver – and that alone would once have seemed fanciful
Writer Simon Arron
Formula 1 was often discussed in the Green family household, but not in the way you might imagine. “My dad raced stock cars and my brother still does,” Jamie says. “That’s what F1 meant in our world…”
It was on short ovals that the young Green cut his teeth, winning the BriSCA Ministox title as a 10-year-old before switching to karts in 1996 and finishing as runner-up in the Junior TKM series at his first attempt. This early turn of speed attracted the attention of the Fletcher family – owner of the PF International kart circuit, near Newark – and they agreed to support his fledgling career as he competed against Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica and others of similar calibre.
“Racing in Italy for the first time was a bit of an eye-opener,” he says. “It was just so competitive and many of the guys had been there for years. I was used to Long Eaton and places like that. I didn’t race abroad until I was 15 and quite a few of the quick guys had been there for a year or two, learning the language, the culture and the different driving style – it’s warmer than Britain, so there was more rubber on the track and you had to adapt to that. It wasn’t quite like Shenington... It was at a different level and I had to learn from scratch.”
By 2001 he was in Formula A and splitting his time between Britain, where he finished second in the championship, and Europe, where he notched up a couple of wins.
“That’s when I received a phone call from [former Jordan F1 team manager] Trevor Foster,” he says. “He’d seen me race, wanted to help and had arranged a Formula Renault test for me, with Fortec. I didn’t need to bring any money – I just had to turn up.”
He did and – with continuing support from the Fletchers – contested the 2001 Renault Winter Series before graduating to the full British championship, in which he finished second to Fortec team-mate Danny Watts – and one place ahead of Lewis Hamilton. At the end of that year he won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award.
“We tested a Mercedes DTM car as part of the MABA assessment,” he says, “and you had to write down your mobile phone number before you took the wheel. A few weeks later I received a call from HWA, which ran the DTM team, telling me that they were building an F3 engine and asking whether I’d like to try it. I gave them Trevor’s number, he spoke to HWA and I went to do a test at Hockenheim, after which I was offered a contract for European F3.”
It was a slightly bewildering time for a driver with just one full season of car racing under his belt. There was a potential British F3 seat with Carlin in the pipeline, the Renault Driver Development scheme had approached him
and now this.
“It would be the first year of the revived European F3,” he says, “so Trevor thought it might be a bit of a gamble. It was only my second year in cars and I’d just learned most of the UK circuits. I didn’t know the European tracks and wouldn’t have been able to choose the team, because Mercedes would have placed me somewhere. I’d already tested for Carlin, whose Honda engines were a known quantity, so I thanked HWA very much, told them I’d decided to do British F3 but that I’d like to stay in touch. I didn’t burn any bridges.
“I then went to Donington for the first British F3 meeting and won both races, after which Mercedes rang and invited me to a meeting with [then motor sport director] Norbert Haug. He told me they’d been impressed by what they’d seen and offered me a contract as a Mercedes junior, with a place in the European F3 team for 2004. I signed later that summer.”
Green finished second in the British F3 Championship, behind South African Alan van der Merwe, then joined ASM for a European F3 campaign that netted seven victories and the championship title. The list of those in his slipstream included Nico Rosberg (fourth), Hamilton (fifth) and Kubica (seventh). At the time it seemed inconceivable that his single-seater career would at this point stall, but such has been the reality.
“The end of that season proved to be something of a crossroads,” he says. “My team had secured a 2005 entry for the new GP2 Series [under a fresh identity, ART], but again Trevor wasn’t sure because it was a step into the unknown. And we’d have had to find quite a bit of money. Could we have done that? Possibly, yes, but we had a Mercedes DTM contract on the table and McLaren had been taking a bit of an interest – although I think I was a bit of a thorn in their side, as they’d invested a lot in Lewis and I was the British kid who’d been beating their British kid. They took me under their wing a little bit and I did some bits and bobs over the next few years – simulator testing and so on. They trusted me enough to put me in the car – I did some shakedown laps wearing Alonso’s helmet when he first joined the team in 2007, for instance – but they never really gave me a chance to show how quickly I could go.”
For 2005, then, Rosberg and Alexandre Prémat took the ART GP2 seats, finishing first and fourth in the championship, while Green switched to the DTM with a side salad of McLaren simulator work.
“The two things went together quite well,” he says, “and you have to remember that four years earlier I’d been racing karts. All of a sudden I was a professional. It was a good thing to be part of the Mercedes set-up, I knew there would be opportunities if I kept doing a solid job and it was a chance to start repaying the Fletchers for some of their investment. I had my McLaren contacts, too, although I knew I was never going to be ahead of Lewis in the pecking order.
“Besides, I was getting paid to be team-mate to Mika Häkkinen and Jean Alesi – and it was quite hard to get my head around the fact that I was faster than both of them. A few years beforehand I’d been watching Mika winning F1 races, yet now I was two tenths quicker in a DTM car. How on earth had that happened? During the season I managed a couple of poles, a few podiums and set fastest lap in my first DTM race, at Hockenheim, against Bernd Schneider, Mika, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and so on. I was just a kid from Leicester, so it was still a ridiculous dream story.”
And that is where he has remained, driving for Mercedes until the end of 2012 and then switching to Audi. He has scored wins along the way – four of them last season, when he finished second in the standings to the
F1-bound Pascal Wehrlein – but a first tin-top title has thus far been elusive.
“It was a big decision to leave Mercedes,” he says, “but it was time for a change. There was interest from BMW and Audi, I still had plenty of seasons left in me and felt if I made the right choice that I could remain with one marque for the rest of my career. Audi’s focus was very much on sports cars and DTM and it was clear that they did both properly. With Mercedes I felt the DTM had become slightly half-hearted because there was so much investment in F1. For the longer term I felt Audi offered other possibilities [he has his eye on a parallel GT programme, perhaps from 2017]. If you look at Audi’s motor sport centre in Neuburg, it’s awesome, with its own test track and wind tunnel – better than anything McLaren has! I sensed the firm’s commitment to racing and that fitted with my plans. It was a great opportunity.”
Does he harbour any regrets, when he sees how some of the youngsters he regularly beat have since flourished? “I’ve never really thought about it,” he says. “I suspect I was never destined to be an F1 driver – indeed it’s hard to believe I was ever destined to be any kind of racing professional. I earn a good living, I live in Monaco [although he also has a holiday home in his native Leicester, which might make him unique] and I get paid to race – that’s all I do, so I think I’m massively fortunate. In terms of ability I think I was probably good enough to race in F1, but things just didn’t pan out that way.
“I remember Lewis racing a Cadet kart at Kimbolton when he was about 10 and it was already pretty obvious that he was special, not merely good. Cadets provided some of the best racing you’ll ever see, with a lead train of eight or 10 karts. It was a bit like MotoGP, in that whoever led into the final lap was unlikely to win. Watching it was fascinating, but watching Lewis was even more fascinating because he always seemed to know where he needed to be in order to win. He was only a kid, but it was hard not to be impressed by his natural racecraft. Then I’d talk to him afterwards and he didn’t seem all that switched on. I thought at the time, ‘How does that work?’ because in the kart he so was incredibly sharp. Even now you sometimes hear him on the radio and he sounds a bit lost, but he has so much raw ability that I don’t think his naivety holds him back.
“If I watch TV and see Lewis winning, I appreciate that he’s very, very good and beating him wouldn’t be easy, but I think it’s fair to say that I could have reached at least a similar level. I can sit back and feel quite content
about what I’ve achieved, but if I’m that good – and he’s won three F1 world championships – then on paper I should have won a few DTM titles by now, which I haven’t. That’s the greater frustration.”
Wehrlein beat him by 19 points in 2015 – and he lost a likely 25 with a gearbox failure when leading at the Red Bull-Ring (“A standard part, which everyone uses, so just one of those things”) while also drawing a blank in two wet races – and here he accepts that he and the team simply didn’t do their sums right.
The DTM is known for its intra-team politics, but Green points out that everybody starts the year on an equal footing, with zero success ballast. “There are occasions when you have to respect team orders,” he says, “and as a driver you don’t always want to be doing that. But Audi and the other marques are doing this to promote their brands and don’t want drivers taking points off each other in a title fight. The trick is to make a flying start to the season, so that you’re the guy they need to back. I’ve been in both positions – playing a supporting role and going for the title – and I don’t enjoy letting a team-mate past, but the cars are mega-quick and there are lots of positives.
“If you look at opportunities to make a decent living as a racing driver in Europe, we have F1, WEC, DTM and that’s about it. I’m in one of the three best places I could be – and realistically there are only two for me, because F1 isn’t going to happen at this stage. I’m in a good place.”